Is That Brick Wall In Your Head?

This originally ran in the Ancestry Daily News on 14 July 2004.

Genealogy brick walls–those problems we think are insurmountable– are frustrating. Occasionally the brick walls are of our own making, and those walls are the ones we are looking at this week. Some ancestors left behind confusing records, but it is possible that we have muddied the road ourselves. Today’s column focuses on some questions to ask yourself in an attempt to knock a hole in that brick wall.

Is the Tradition Really True?
Are you holding on too tightly to that beloved family tradition from Aunt Helen? The one that apparently was a state secret. Even though she lived in rural Kansas, she whispered it to you, fearful that the neighbor five miles up the road would hear.

Or, despite her insistence to the contrary, maybe her grandfather did not own eight hundred acres of prime Indiana farmland and maybe he was born into abject poverty.

Remember, you may find clues in these stories, but they may be small ones.

Do You Have the Right Place?
County boundaries have changed, and that is not the only potential geographic problem. Is it possible you are mixing up the name of the county with the name of the town? Remember that if a state has a county and town with a same name, the town may not be located in the county of the same name. Keokuk, Iowa, is located in Lee County, Iowa–not Keokuk County, Iowa, as one might expect. There are numerous other examples.

International boundaries can create difficulties as well. My daughter was looking on Mapquest,, for Limavady, Ireland, because she was creating a map for a project. After insisting to me that Limavady was not in Ireland and that I must be wrong (something children love to do), I realized that she should be searching for Limavady in the United Kingdom, not in Ireland, as Limavady is in Northern Ireland. Boundary and geo-political changes in other parts in other parts of the world can create similar problems.

Do You Have the Right Spelling?
Sometimes family historians “hold tight” to that one particular spelling, insisting that it is the “only one” and that those with a “wrong” spelling either cannot be the same person or are not related. As much as it irritates me, my last name is occasionally listed as “Neil,” “Neal,” “O’Neill,” and a variety of other spellings–particularly in old records. The sooner one learns to accept these variants and to search for them, the fewer brick walls they will have. And remember, if your ancestor was illiterate, he couldn’t read how his name was written anyway.

Do You Know What You Are Doing?
Our friends and relatives may occasionally wonder if we know what we are doing, but there is a serious side to this question. If you are researching in an area where you are unfamiliar with the history, culture, or records, you are at a serious disadvantage. You are also significantly increasing the chances of interpreting something incorrectly and researching in the wrong direction.

A few years ago in this column, we discussed the importance of learning about the time period and culture when a mid-eighteenth century will from Virginia was analyzed. The female writer of the will did not mention any real estate and her inventory did not list any real estate because at the time women were not allowed to own property and consequently could not bequeath any real property in a will.

It is always an excellent idea to learn about the time and place in which our ancestors lived.

Do You Know What the Word Means?
Are you absolutely certain you are interpreting a word in the proper historical and social context? Is the word a legal term with which you are not familiar? An incorrect interpretation may send you down the wrong path.

Are You Disorganized?
For some of us, this is a loaded question. The stacks of paper on our desktop attest to our organizational skills. Research that is highly unorganized and done in a haphazard fashion is apt to be inefficient and unsuccessful. It is also important to organize the information one has located in order to see patterns and trends that will not be obvious when the records are analyzed individually. There are a variety of ways one can organize information.

Do You Have the Right Person?
Sometimes more than one individual with the same name lived in the same location, and the two can easily be confused by a researcher two hundred years later. Is your confusion resulting from “merging” two different people together? First cousins (particularly males who share the same paternal grandfather) can easily have the same first and last name. If the last name is Smith or Jones, there can easily be several unrelated contemporary people with the same name in the same location.

Do You Have the Correct Pronunciation?
If your ancestor’s native language was not the language of the country where he lived and not the language in which his records were written, confusion can result. The town of Kisa, Sweden, can very easily be pronounced to where it sounds like “Cheesuh,” As a result, the name of the village might be spelled starting with the letters “Ch” instead of “K.” If your ancestor’s place of birth on a death record cannot be located, consider that the spelling on an English language record may be how a native English speaker interpreted a non-English word. Obtaining a guide to how letters are pronounced in a foreign language can be good start to overcoming this type of stumbling block.

Did Someone Get Remarried?
Multiple marriages of ancestors can create brick walls. If your ancestor was widowed or divorced, there is always a chance that he or she married again. Keep in mind that hard times and lack of financial support may have easily resulted in a marriage of convenience, if not outright necessity. This subsequent marriage may have meant the addition of stepchildren to the family and the informal changing of the last names of some children. All of these things can result in confusion for the researcher five generations later.

Do You Have Hidden Assumptions?
It is easy to make assumptions, and often they are necessary to get our research started. The downside to assumptions is that if we are not careful, they can migrate from the “land of assumption” to the “land of fact.” Assumptions that have accidentally become facts often do not go back to being assumptions.

To clean out your assumptions and become more aware of some you might have been overlooking, write down everything you “know” about an ancestor or a problem. Then find the sources you have to prove each statement. Are there statements for which you have no direct proof? Is it possible to verify these statements using a combination of documents and reasonable logic? If not, then you have assumptions left. Is it possible that some of these assumptions are incorrect? Even if they are not, a careful analysis may indicate that the remaining assumptions at least need to be modified.

Give Them a Rest
After all, most of your ancestors are dead and they are not going anywhere anytime soon. One final approach (and a favorite of mine) is to work on another family and then come back to the brick wall person a few weeks (or months) later. Sometimes time is the greatest destructive force that can be applied to a brick wall.


8 thoughts on “Is That Brick Wall In Your Head?

  1. Patty Gilbert says:

    My, what a breath of fresh air. This morning reading this article on brickwalls gave me a new perspective on what I am doing. Iam doing it right. I have been sick this winter and now I am finally feeling well enough to dive into my fun time again. U r so helpful. Thank u!

  2. Wendye Lowden says:

    Hi Michael,
    I am wondering if you could add a print button to these pages. This article is really good and I would love to print it out and put it in the cover of my binder so that I see it every time I start working on my family.

    Remember when you were talking about the word roods meaning 1/4 acre of land? Well, I have a document from 1789 Dundee listing the purchase of 2 roods of land in Hilltown in Dundee by my 4X great grandfather, Gilbert Lowden and his spouse.


  3. Anne E Wiltshire says:

    I you can’t find them – has the name been transcribed correctly – think not only your variations but the way the transcriber has seen the name. I have overcome a few brickwalls by writing down the name and then trying to imagine what the transcriber could have seen. This is particularly true of early handwriting.

  4. We just broke down a brick wall. Who would have thought that our eighteen year old bride, marrying a man twenty years older than she was, had been married at the age of 14? We knew her name from her first marriage and yes, assumed that was her maiden name. Oops! But now we’ve got her, and found some good stories, and have officially welcomed her, and her father’s family, to the family tree. Now to figure out who her mother was! She’s not a brick wall-yet.

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